Engineering for climate adaptation: a rethink is crucial
Jaap Kwadijk, Science Director, Deltares
I have been involved in climate change research my entire working life. But now, as a citizen of the Netherlands living in a river delta at only 20 cm (0.66ft) above sea level, I am starting to get worried for the very first time. Recent scientific publications have warned that the planet may be reacting much faster and more vigorously to climate change than we thought.
We are facing the prospect of an unstoppable collapse of large parts of the Antarctic ice sheet, and a rapid rise in the sea level of several metres. The potential impact on our communities globally almost defies comprehension and my country is facing a potential catastrophe.
Strong action on emissions could still prevent this scenario but, with the US withdrawing from the Paris agreement, the rosiest scenarios for limiting global warming are disappearing behind the horizon. The need to accelerate our adaptation strategies is crystal clear. Over the last two centuries, engineering solutions such as dikes and dams have been extremely successful in sustaining human life in deltas. We have learnt from countless failures and made major advances using those lessons. But the context has changed: the need to keep pace with increased urbanisation, rapid climate change and sea level rise represents a daunting challenge. So daunting that we need to rethink our engineering approaches if our deltas are to remain habitable in th 21st century.
Nature-based solutions have been widely proposed as an attractive alternative or a complementary approach to traditional engineering. They are potentially cost-effective ways of reducing vulnerability to the impact of climate change and of generating multiple benefits for the environment and local communities: restoring and sustaining livelihoods, improving food security and sequestering carbon.
Green investors are very interested in nature-based solutions. Yet our level of expertise is not keeping pace. Initiatives undertaken without a sound scientific basis can all too easily fail and, unless we learn the lessons from these experimental approaches, we risk missing significant opportunities to adapt to climate change.
Unfortunately, the world does not have another 200 years. Large-scale sustainable solutions must be found in the next few decades. To accelerate the planetary response, we propose the adoption of four principles and three research requirements.
The four principles to accelerate and up-scale engineering for sustainable climate adaptation
– Design at a much larger scale. We are currently experimenting with nature-based solutions in pilot projects that are too small to produce a significant local impact and, indeed, to determine whether these solutions can be used for larger areas. A successful example of coastal/river engineering design on the scale needed is the Delta Programme in the Netherlands, which was established to protect the Netherlands against climate change and sea level rise. It covers the entire delta and addresses flood risk management, water supply, ecology and spatial planning. This approach to design implies embracing system thinking that transcend national borders and it underscores the need for highly integrated multi-stakeholder coordination and multilateral funding.
– Do not waste natural resources. The concept of the circular economy in infrastructure development focuses on energy, nutrients and carbon. It must be widened to include water and sediment. More comprehensive strategies for the development of infrastructure on the regional scale, sediment management and supplies of fresh water can transform the nuisances of the present into the resources of the future. For example, sediment trapped in upstream reservoirs of the Mississippi River could have nourished the downstream delta, mitigating the impact of land subsidence and sea level rise. Elsewhere, in Jakarta, Indonesia, the infrastructure for fresh water depletes groundwater resources, resulting in land subsidence and more flooding. At the same time, fresh surface water, which is locally abundant, is being rapidly polluted and flushed into the sea.
– Look for multiple benefits and couple them with intervention agendas. The scope of the response to climate change must be wider than climate change alone: it must also address society’s other needs. We urgently need to identify how climate adaptation, and specifically adaptation using nature-based solutions, can help societies achieve their broader sustainability goals – health, prosperity, regeneration, equity and so on – in order to make it clear why it is so important to tackle climate change.
– Anticipate, monitor and predict at appropriate scales. We need to look a long way into the future to determine the feasibility of large-scale interventions and make sure we do not block our options down the line. Large-scale interventions can have an impact well outside the immediate locality. All this means that we must explore adaptation options and develop pathways to prepare for sustainable investment decisions that can be implemented when needed. To understand the impacts of interventions beforehand, and to track impacts during and after implementation, we need to monitor and predict at very large spatial scales and look at much longer periods of time.
Crucial research requirements for a sound scientific basis
First of all, we scientists must think differently about the added value of our services. We need large-scale experiments, and even accept experiments with a substantial failure probability. Given our lack of time to adapt to climate change, the challenge for both science and policy will be to go forward with initial research findings rather than waiting for conclusive evidence.
Secondly, data and computer science must combine forces with the climate, earth system and environmental sciences. This will empower a leap forward in terms of predicting the impact of nature-based solutions at a large scale in an integrated way. In turn, a generation of scientists with more multidisciplinary experience will be established; they will be better prepared to face the inevitable environmental challenges of the future.
Finally, targeted research of this kind requires much more, internationally-organised, co-funding. We advocate the establishment of a large international research and development fund in the order of one per cent of the investment required to achieve the SDGs ($5-7 trillion) and the targets of the Paris Agreement ($100 billion per year for adaptation). By fostering targeted research and development, we can use our limited resources in much more informed ways to achieve the maximum positive impact, save billions in unnecessary climate-related damage and dramatically reduce suffering around the world.
About the author
Professor Dr Jaap Kwadijk is science director of Deltares, an applied research institute in the Netherlands. He is also professor for Climate and Water management at the University Twente. E-mail: Jaap.email@example.com